February 2012

The Nation Reviewed


By Don Watson
Mates don't let mates slide into decadence and decay. IMAGE: Commonwealth of Australia
Mates don't let mates slide into decadence and decay. IMAGE: Commonwealth of Australia
Address to the US President

Mr President,

Thank you for making room in your busy schedule to see me while you are in Darwin. In the short time I have at your disposal, let me welcome you to our shores. I trust you have found your soldiers in good spirits and enjoying their vital role as guardians of our joint regional security. I hope they’re putting on plenty of sunscreen, Mr President. Our Aussie sun really burns.

It is altogether fitting and proper, Mr President …

Or, in the event that the president’s chopper is drowning you out.

I wonder if you could turn your helicopter off for a moment. If not, I totally understand. I know they can be hard to get started again.

Mr President, our friendship is a mature one, a lasting one. It is a friendship set in concrete: in the love we share for Democracy – “the sublime revelation of man’s relation to man”, as one of your predecessors so memorably put it. Our love of democracy is matched by a love of liberty and peace; for the sovereignty of the individual, the spirit of free enterprise and the dignity of all men and women.

You hold these things to be self-evident, as another of your predecessors put it so memorably, Mr President.

If they can hear you, this may prompt applause.

We have gone into battle together for these principles, Mr President, and we stand ready to go into battle again, whenever, wherever, and on whatever pretext, after strenuous consultation, you decide we should.

Mr President, we can confer no greater honour on a friend than to call him ‘mate’. And that is what our two countries are – mates, Mr President. Mates are us.

You have good buddies I know, but I think I am right in saying that buddyship is not the core national value that mateship is in Australia. 

You have many other core values of course. Great core values that have made the United States a beacon to the whole world. And fondly do we hope, Mr President, fervently do we pray that those values and that beacon will continue to glow brightly.


I will not try to explain what we Australians mean by mateship, Mr President. It is far above my poor power. In fact, it is a cardinal virtue of our creed that mates don’t need to explain these things to each other. They just know them.

Mateship is a quality of mute understanding, forged in the unsparing design of Providence to inflict droughts, bushfires, floods, weeds and vermin on all who dare to tame this continent; the issue of men thrown together in crude dwellings, in mine-shafts and shearing sheds, on battlefields and balancing on springboards 30 feet up gum trees at either end of a cross-cut saw. These are the things that made us us.

Possible applause from the Australians in the audience.

As your things made you you, Mr President. Indefinable, intangible things; elusive things – but things just the same.

Mr President, a mate sticks by you when you find yourself in trouble, be it your own fault or someone else’s. You can be a ratbag or a blithering idiot, and a mate’ll stick. You can make a complete animal of yourself, and he’ll stick all the stronger.

Of course I don’t mean to imply that the United States is in any sense a fount of humbug, or moronic, as your own HL Mencken insisted it was, or root and branch corrupt as Mark Twain and many others have said, or, beyond a few notorious examples, animal-like in any way.

Somewhat forlorn pause.

Mr President, mateship demands that one mate tell the other when someone’s dogging him – that is, unless the one doing the dogging is also a mate. In such cases the normal thing is to hang out with a different set of mates till the business blows over. This is not one of those cases; and, even if it were, we don’t have any other mates – what you would call real mates – in this part of the world to hang out with.

Mr President, there are people dogging you. There are people saying America’s hollowed out like a walnut with weevils: the communitarian ethos by which it flourished in the great years has been replaced by outrageous greed and self-indulgence, the good society by the security state, the civilian economy by the military–industrial complex. That’s what they say, Mr President: not us – them. A kleptocracy sustained by unreasoning fear and ignorance, fantasies, brainless cults of materialism and celebrity. A hollow empire; rampant bully and quaking adolescent both; an eight-dollar-an-hour neo-feudal slum. Your republic is rotting, Mr President. That’s what they say.

Just the other day, in Newsweek, there was an investment banker with Lehman Brothers for 30 years – “kissing ass and lying through his teeth” the whole time, by his account. He says the story of modern America is opposite what Roosevelt and Kennedy inspired him to believe: corruption, he says, “has settled like some all-enveloping excremental mist on the landscape of our hopes … permeated every nook of any institution or being that has real influence on the way we live now.”

Mr President, feel free to have your military detain this 75 year old indefinitely under the powers granted by the legislation you recently signed. We will understand. Render him to Darwin if you like. Let him learn that the rights of man derive from the generosity of the state, and not, as some idealists have previously averred, from the hand of God.

Likely applause.

Mr President, according to the most recent statistics, on the battlefields of Iraq, 4487 American servicemen and women were killed and 32,226 were wounded. This does not include suicides, accidental deaths and Americans whose last full measure of devotion was made per medium of private contractors. The Pentagon also reports 229,106 cases of mild to severe traumatic brain injury among US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The RAND Corporation found 14% of veterans suffered post-traumatic stress disorder and the same proportion suffered major depression. Fourteen percent of 1.5 million is 210,000. Veterans of America estimates that one in three – 500,000 – suffered PTSD, depression or brain trauma. For every soldier wounded in action more than four more were evacuated for other medical reasons. Chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine, memory loss, sleep disorders, malaria, hepatitis and tuberculosis were among many diseases suffered by returning soldiers. The Department of Veterans Affairs warns combat veterans that they may suffer debilitation from exposure to depleted uranium, toxic shrapnel, open-air burn pits and hazardous chemicals. Yet war is war, and as my mother used to say, it’s no good getting upset at things you can’t do anything about.

There have been at least 130,000 civilian deaths in Iraq, an unknown number maimed, one and a half million refugees, at least as many internally displaced. Too terrible to think about, Mr President, and I’m sure that’s why you never mention them.

The president is due to depart around now. Should he do so, wave gaily.

Mr President, if the United States fails then the whole cause of freedom fails, John F Kennedy said half a century ago. He meant it must lead by example. 

Yet we could not help noticing that at the very same time as one bunch of Americans were paying any price and bearing any burden and meeting any hardship to assure the success of liberty, another bunch were behaving as if it were their equally solemn duty to make themselves obscenely rich. And I must say, as a mate, we did wonder why you rewarded them with bailouts and positions in your Cabinet, especially when to no one’s surprise they put the great bulk of the money not to new lending, restructuring mortgages, stalling foreclosures or doing a single thing to help their country or their struggling fellow citizens, but to satisfying the same old scabrous greed.

“Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life,” Kennedy said. Your military budget now totals 43% of the whole world’s. Are you mad? We don’t care, but since Kennedy inspired you with a call to civic duty, you’ve increased the power to abolish life a thousand-fold; made war, to quote your own Andrew J Bacevich, your “normal condition”; and condemned 46 million of your people to poverty. And they’re getting poorer. Of course, we speak only of material impoverishment, Mr President. No doubt you are strong in spirit.

But, Mr President, we’re like two men on opposite ends of a cross-saw that stretches across the Pacific. Mates. It’s not for us to ask why you saved the banks instead of the economy. And if you’ve got it upside-down and arse-about, that’s when we stick strongest. Going back, we’ve always been here, and we’ll always be here going forward. Together we are one, Mr President.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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